Maxwell Doig Interview
ML: What role does color play in your work?
MD: I use colour to suggest and imply, and I tend to use it sparingly. Texture, light, tone and form are all more important to me.
ML: Would you walk us through your process in studio?
MD: I like to get into a daily rhythm of work, which I try to build on everyday. I begin with studies on paper, this way I can see if the figure is worth taking to the next stage. I then work up the backgrounds, very loosely, on larger canvases. Building up textures with thick impasto paint, usually earth colours. The next stage is the figure, which is more precise and analytical, then I begin to relate the figure and background, so they are working together. I keep going until everything comes together, hopefully, and feels right.
ML: The comparisons I've read of your work to Vermeer's is apt in that your painting contains a similar illumination. In Figure Reading II, 2003, the fabric, the newspaper, the shirt cloth, all brought that forward. How do you produce this luminous quality?
MD: The luminous quality you describe in "Figure Reading 2," comes from building layer upon layer of white paint, one on top of the other. I start with the background tone and work forwards with fabric and figure, each time making the whites more white.
ML: What drew me to your work is the stillness represented in the solitary figure. They are solitary, yet this never implies a sense of loneliness or seeking outside the moment. This current runs over many years within your work. Has this always been a conscious effort to represent the moment without any static surrounding it?
MD: Looking back I can see the solitary current running through the work. I'm aware of it now but haven't always been. Although, painting has always been an ordering process for me. Where various elements can be carefully placed, and contained within the rectangle of the painting. Unlike life which can be chaotic and noisy. Perhaps being an only child and being content in my own company, maybe this comes through... I know painting is a solitary business and maybe this shows through too.
ML: There is great technique in the obvious representation of recognizable figures & objects, but what you portray is a very abstract, ephemeral sensibility that, for me, is the primary focus of the paintings. How does your technique work toward creating that sensibility?
MD: For me it's more about trusting the process than the actual technique, which looks after itself. It's having a sense of whatever you do, you know it will come right in the end. It doesn't always come right in the end but the trust means you can let go of controlling the paint and surprising results sometimes happen.
ML: In Figure Reading with Blue Shirt, 2003, there is a presence in the folded shirt placed next to the woman, who is the focal point. The presence in that folded shirt is poetic in its ability to imply backstory. Can you speak to the extraordinary balance that goes into creating this presence, while maintaining the thread of contentment in the figure, that sense that she is not searching outside the moment?
MD: I can talk about how the painting works formally, how the shirt and figure relate to each other. At the same time, I'm aware the two together might imply a back story and this is a very subjective area and open to interpretation.
ML: Over the many years you have worked with the solitary figure, how has your approach to representing human nature in these moments of solitude developed?
MD: It's not my aim to represent human nature as such, it's more a state of being. As I explain in my answer about figures in water, I aim to show a "sense of being" through representing and relating to the pose. My approach has developed in the sense that I have developed and matured as a person and I think ideas, skill and craft develop alongside each other. In recent years, there has been more analysis of form; but I have always used the human figure as a metaphor or symbol for my own inner life and vision.
ML: In your latest work, the figures appear in water. Please speak to that connection between the human figure and water.
MD: Compared to figures on solid ground, which are still and permanent the water figures are transient - their opposite. The water allows movement and change; the form dissolves and suggests and it allows me to take liberties with human figure. I enjoy swimming and know how it feels to move through the water and I try to use this experience in the paintings. I knew at an early stage that when working with the human figure, that if I could feel the pose in my own body then somehow, the drawing or painting would be more convincing because it was more felt.
ML: What compels you to use the materials you choose for each series?
MD: With figures on the ground, I use thick impasto colours in the backgrounds. I tend to use a lot of white, which although it reflects a lot of light, it is a solid opaque colour. Unlike black which I use for dissolving forms such as my swimmers in dark water. With these, I use transparent colours to build up glazes, this allows forms to dissolve and soften.
ML: And, finally, to what tradition does your work belong, and who are your influences?
MD: There have been many influences over the years, however, my main influences are northern European figurative painters, past and present. People like Hammershoi, with his restrained palette and subtlety of light, and Prunella Clough with her gritty surfaces and sideways view of the world. I would include Andrew Wyeth here, even though he was American, his work comes out of this tradition. There is an introspective, self contained quality and a restraint which I identify with. And an interest in surface and the texture of things, which runs all the way through this long tradition. Which, of course, goes right back to the Netherlands in the 15th century with painters like Jan Van Eyck.
ML: Yes, I absolutely see that "interest in surface and the texture of things" in your work. Thank you so much for joining us Maxwell. It's been lovely getting to know your work from the artist's perspective.